BY ANDREW MOODY
If ever a film divided viewers, then Martin Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver is it. Hailed by some as a masterpiece of 1970s New Hollywood, to others an exploitative picture that leaves the viewer with a sense of great unease, not least in its casting of 12 year old Jodie Foster as a child prostitute.
Written by Paul Schrader during a nightmarish period in his life, suffering from an ulcer and constant black moods, the film is the story of Travis Bickle, an alienated Vietnam veteran (Robert de Niro) who gets a job as a taxi driver in New York. Driving through the worst parts of town, he grows steadily more psychotic as he spends his off hours frequenting porno theatres in a vain effort to sleep. Two coincidental events occur in his drab and lonely life, the first is when he develops a crush on a beautiful woman who he is too shy to approach until his fantasy forces him to. Betsy, played by Cybil Shepherd, is working on an election campaign. Beautiful and unattainable, after he offers her a date to see a movie, he takes her to a porno theatre in order to show her the dysphoric horror that comprises his existence. Sickened, she walks out on him and, after refusing his calls, Travis starts to build up an arsenal of weaponry.
The second coincidence is when a child prostitute, Iris, played by Jodie Foster, jumps into the back of his cab, and is forced back out by her pimp (Harvey Keitel). He becomes obsessed with two possible annihilations, firstly the gunning down of the senator who Betsy is working for, and secondly, the massacre of the gangsters keeping Iris as a whore.
Taxi Driver is a journey to the darkest recesses of the human psyche, a dirty, squalid movie shot in an experimental documentary style. Its famous score, the last that long-time Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann completed before his death, conjures up a disturbing, nightmare reality. Travis Bickle is damaged, like so many young American men back from Vietnam, he was abandoned by his government and forced to deal with his mental illness alone.
Paul Schrader has gone on record to say that out of the films he has worked on with Scorsese and de Niro, Taxi Driver belongs primarily to him. Born into a strict, Dutch Calvinist home, he didn’t see his first film until he was nearly twenty. His parents were abusive, beating him for the smallest of infractions. Like Travis Bickle, he too had trouble with women and a fascinating relationship with guns. It’s not too outlandish to say that had he not gone into movie making, he could have gone on a killing spree. But his violence was more masochistic than Bickle’s inherent sadism. As his financial success grew, Schrader kept an iron rendering of Christ’s crown of thorns which he would force onto his own scalp in fits of self loathing.
Robert de Niro, who turned Taxi Driver into a Go project after his Oscar win for playing the young Vito Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather Part Two (1974), was so obsessed with the role of Travis Bickle that he moved to New York and got a job as a real life cabbie. He would pick Schrader’s brain for the smallest details… would Travis wear this shirt, would he have this haircut etc, until Schrader just told him that if de Niro thought so, then he probably would.
Scorsese in the mid seventies was a critical darling but had yet to make a commercial hit. For many years, Taxi Driver remained his only success, as Spielberg and Lucas turned the Easy Rider Hollywood era on its head with Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) and gave the auteur-director led industry back to the producers and executives.
Taxi Driver is a one off kind of a picture, a film that will never be made again. Its dedication to capturing a vision of hell on earth should be commended, but it remains a difficult, disturbing watch.
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